2011 is officially over and what a year it was for genre fiction in general. We were hit with many long awaited reads as well as one of the most impressive debut lists in quite a few years. Making decisions on this list certainly hasn't been easy and if you asked me to redo this list in 2 weeks it would probably look slightly different in order at least, if not titles. During the course of the year I managed to read 125 books or so and here is what I consider to be the cream of the crop.
With many Giants of Fantasy releasing novels most would think they'd win easily, but over and over again I found myself recommending The Night Circus to nearly everybody I know. It has stayed with me like few novels have. Morganstern created a world most anyone would love to get lost in. While The Wise Man's Fear hasn't been as universally acclaimed as The Name of the Wind it did fulfill all my expectations and Rothfuss continues to redefine modern Fantasy. The Magician King did nothing but play with my expectations taking the idea of the quest into heretofore unexplored territories while still reminding us of why quests adventures are so memorable. And that ending! The fact that it is better than The Magicians amazed me. The Cloud Roads and The Alchemist both stood out for their originality and left me wanting more from these worlds. A Dance with Dragons made the list entirely because of the Jon Snow chapters while Abercrombie's latest effort showed me Military Fantasy done to near perfection.
Winner - Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Runner-up - Seed by Rob Ziegler
Honorable Mentions - Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh, Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson, and Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson
While this year wasn't as strong as 2009/2010 for Science Fiction (Bacigalupi/Yu/Rajaniemi)there was plenty of good. Ready Player One just pushed all the right buttons with me and if you've ever been a regular gamer and were raised in the late 70s or or 80s you can't help but fall in love with the story and mentions of the things you loved growing up. Seed was told with such a strong voice and imagines such a realistic world I was left reeling about the possible future. Ziegler is definitely an author to watch. You could certainly say I had a strong inclination towards Apocalyptic reads this year given the nature of all of the above, excepting Vortex, containing some sort of decline of civilization.
Winner - Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine
Runner-up (tie) - Ganymede by Cherie Priest and All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen
This year I dialed back the number of Steampunk reads, but those I did partake of ratcheted things up. Mechanique is a flat-out beautiful and disconcerting novel. Ganymede is now my second favorite Cherie Priest novel since she honored New Orleans so well and Rosen's debut brought laughter and a sense of joy to Steampunk.
This was a difficult category since you can define UF pretty broadly, but I stuck to books traditionally marketed as UF with the exception of The Rift Walker, which could have just as easily gone under Steampunk or just Fantasy. Hearne's Iron Druid series managed to balance humor, action, and gods in such an entertaining fashion that I was hooked from the onset. Aloha from Hell brought Sandman Slim up a notch with Kadrey caustic style while Briarpatch explored loss and what truly living can mean. No Hero did things just right by not taking itself too seriously in what turned out to be a mad cap throw down with beings from the beyond.
This was certainly the hardest category to narrow down since debuts were not only plentiful, but so many of them were damn good. Among Thieves was an early candidate in the year that never really slipped from that spot. Hulick's ability to weave such an intricate tale while also never having a dull moment locked it into place. God's War's Nyx is a star in the making and may go down as one of the most memorable characters in Genre. She is beguiling. She is tough. And she gets the job done. While Seed is getting a lot of comparisons to The Wind-Up Girl Ziegler goes for a much more minimalist style, but no less believable. He is a writer helping to illustrate what our destructive ways could wrought. The Tiger's Wife is one of the most beautifully written books I read this year. Some lines simply took my breathe away. Will McIntosh's Soft Apocalypse brought the idea of a slow degradation of our world to mind in a very believable way and as great as I think his first novel is I think he'll have even strong books in the future.
The Goblin Corps is the book all pen and paper RPGers have been salivating for. It is playful, at times disgusting, and just plain old fun as it shows us the other side of evil. And somehow Marmell makes you root for the bad guys. Hounded can come off almost too silly at times, but Atticus is just one of those characters you can't help but like as he continues to make quip after quip even while running down a legendary Deity.
1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 are 3 of my all-time favorite novels. So it is not too surprising that Adams' latest reprint collection impressed me as it is also his single best reprint collection yet. From the first to the last story we are shown visions of not so friendly futures. Inherently many are politically driven with "Big Brother" watching or manipulating, but so many are also moral stories about how we treat and trust one another when faced with seemingly impossible decisions. Brave New Worlds isn't just the best reprint anthology of the year, but probably of the last 10 years. Alien Contact does a very satisfying job of covering as many different styles of contact between alien races, but not all would be classified as "First Contact' stories. Alien Contact is a time capsule that illustrates many possibilities of "the other" and our possible reactions to them.
This was an easy choice as Night Shade Books has upped their game so much over the last few years. 2009 was a huge year for them due to the success of The Wind-up Girl and they aren't a group to rest on their laurels. 2011 saw the start to their New Voices program with the goal to push new authors in speculative fiction that expand the boundaries of genre. This pack includes Kameron Hurley (God’s War), J. M. McDermott (Never Knew Another), Bradley P. Beaulieu (The Winds of Khalakovo), Rob Ziegler (Seed), and a whole bunch of other misfits I'm proud to have on my shelves. I can't remember the last time one company has dedicated themselves so much to new writers and managed to keep such a level of quality while doing so. 2012 will see the continuation of this program so I can't wait to see what NSB has in store for us.
I usually have a clear cut idea of which book I'll choose, but this year I just can't. I racked my brain on how to decide between these three books, but they all touched me in some way and will all end up on my shelf of favorite reads (now two shelves). So depending on your tastes any of these three books will please you in many ways:
Ready Player One
Nowadays I re-read so few books, traditionally less than 5 a year, but 2011 was an exception since I re-read all of aSoIaF, The Name of the Wind, The Last Unicorn, and a couple others. So it isn't a light comment when I say something will be re-read. An easy one to mention is The Wise Man's Fear since I enjoyed my re-read of The Name of the Wind before I read WMF and I can see doing it again. Ready Player One is another that I can see getting just as much enjoyment out of a second go around. I have had my sick-day movies such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off picked out for years and now I think I have my new sick-day novel.
If you had told me a year ago that a Dresden Files novel would make this part of the list I would have slapped you and told you to get off my digital lawn, but Ghost Story just disappointed me on so many levels. I was a bit scared at first about posting my thoughts and getting the backlash, but while some disagree with my assessment many agreed with me about the weaknesses even if they ended up liking the book much more than I did. I also had some deep problems with Embassytown. I loved some of the ideas Mieville came up with especially playing with language, but I felt too disconnected from the characters to the point where I didn't even feel enough to dislike them. And the middle of the book was a bit of a mess. I still think Mieville is brilliant. It just didn't work for me. The Unremembered was a debut that came with a lot of promise, but didn't manage to separate itself enough from Epic Fantasy that came before it.
2011 saw me try to get to more of the books that have been sitting on my shelves that I've been "meaning" to read. The stands outs include:
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge - A story so big your mind with have to expand to encompasses it all.
The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett - Remember how much you liked Martin or Abercrombie the fist time? Yeah, it is almost like that. I have the second novel already, but I didn't want to read it until I knew when the next one was coming out, which is now tentatively February 2013.
The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont - Possibly the most pulp-tastic novel of the last twenty years that combines the real pulp writers of 1930s as characters more interesting than their creations. Mixing the genres of adventure, detective, and romance this was just a joy to read.
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon - A novel that keeps you guessing right until the end.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - Say what you will about a book that has been taken to by the masses, but Collins certainly invests you in the characters emotionally.
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Best Books of 2010 (That I've read)
The Mad Hatter's Gift Guide
Top 5 Reads for first half of 2010 (Plus Top 5 Most Anticipated)
Best Books of 2009 (That I've read)